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Food for thought

india Updated: Sep 01, 2009 17:42 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
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The last time I wrote about the things that frequent travellers wanted from hotels – and rarely got – I ended with a threat: I would be returning to the subject with further installments.

This week, I am going to focus on hotel food. Because India is still to develop a full-fledged restaurant culture, it is the hotels that have become centres of F&B excellence. This is great and worth applauding. But my worry is that too many hotels ignore the dining needs of resident guests in the pursuit of outside F&B business.

Bookings: It is great to check into a hotel which has world famous restaurants; not so great when you find you can’t get a booking to eat at them. If I stay at the Maurya, which has the most famous Indian restaurant in the world, I would want to eat at Bukhara. If I checked into the Delhi Taj (or Bombay for that matter) I would expect to get a table at Wasabi.

I accept that tables at both restaurants are rare commodities. But I also believe that if I am paying between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 for a single room I am entitled to greater consideration than some guy who has walked in from off the street.
Abroad, most hotels recognise the rights of resident guests. In London, for instance, the concierges at the Berkeley and Claridge’s are given special allocations for the Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay restaurants even though both restaurants are concessions and not run by the hotels themselves.

In India, hotels run their own restaurants. So why not keep a few tables aside for guests who want to eat at Bukhara, China Kitchen, Dum Pukht, Wasabi, 360 or wherever?

It’s the least hotels can do.
Think also of the PR rub-off. Imagine how good a guest would feel if he checks into his room and finds a little note that says “As you know, our hotel’s Indian restaurant Bukhara is regarded as one of the top 50 restaurants of the world. Bukhara does not accept reservations. But we do our best to accommodate hotel residents. Please call our Priority Guest Line and our concierge will try and block a table for you.”

I use Bukhara as an example but any hotel with a top rated restaurant should be able to do the same thing. It costs nothing. But it makes guests feel special.

I think hotels should also be secure enough to arrange bookings at restaurants they do not run. In the late Eighties, I was in Bangkok with somebody who wanted to celebrate her birthday at some place special. I asked my hotel, the old Siam Intercontinental, for suggestions. They booked us into Sala Rim Nam at the Oriental and arranged for a cake. The Intercontinental lost our business that night. But it earned our loyalty and gratitude for all time.

Abroad, where scoring tables at restaurants is a big deal, concierges at top hotels pride themselves on their ability to secure hard-to-get tables. (The secret? Most trendy restaurants hold back a few tables which they release only to concierges on the day of the booking.)

Now that a standalone culture is developing in India, our hotels should have the confidence to recommend standalone restaurants to guests. In my experience, only the Four Seasons in Bombay actually lists restaurants outside of the hotel in its services directory and offers to book tables for guests.

In Bombay, the Taj would not dream of promoting Indigo (or even the Thai Pavilion for that matter) and in Delhi, you won’t find the Taj Palace recommending Olive. Nor would the Delhi Oberoi suggest a booking at Baci or the Bombay Oberoi bother with Vong Wong.

The time has come to change all that. Guests want to eat outside their hotels. And they will think better of hotels that recommend decent eating options and make their bookings for them.

Room Service: Hotels need to understand that guests do not expect haute cuisine from room service. They want good food that is comforting without being boring or over-priced.

All too often, room service menus are no more than coffee shop menus with a mark-up of 20 per cent on the price. Guests are not idiots. They can tell when a hotel is not making an effort. And they do not like being ripped off.

The comfort food element is not difficult to grasp. Two decades ago, the Taj introduced a ‘ghar ka khana’ section in its room service menus and provided simple, non-greasy Indian food. Then, it recognised that no Indian eats just one dish at home. So it began serving full meals for the price of a main course. If you ordered say, a mutton curry, you could get it as part of a full meal that would include daal, subzi, rice, roti etc.

It was such a brilliant idea that I always wondered why other chains did not follow suit. At too many hotels, a vegetarian who wants a simple meal of daal, chawal, subzi ends up paying Rs 650 for the subzi, Rs 500 for a small bowl of daal and Rs 400 for the rice.

There is a word for this kind of pricing and that word is ‘criminality’.

My own experience, when I check into a hotel late at night, suggests that I am rarely in the mood for such chef-ly delights as ‘kaffir lime-scented Chilean sea bass, napped with a veloute of Kashmiri morels, served with four-grain risotto with imported cheese and a salad of cherry tomatoes flown in from Amsterdam’.

But all too often, that’s the kind of nonsense I find on room service menus.

If I am at an ITC hotel, I order the halim, the biryani or the kathi kebab roll, all of which are outstanding at every ITC property. At the Bombay Taj where the room service chef is a chip off the old block, I’ll order the Goan or the Parsi food. At other hotels, I’ll stick to a club sandwich.

But you’d be surprised by how difficult it is to get a decent sandwich at Indian hotels. Only the Grand Hyatt in Bombay manages to get the club sandwich right: the bread is perfect, the filling is standardised and the fries are always crisp.
Elsewhere, the quality varies. Nine times out of ten, the chips will be soggy and the filling will change depending on which dolt has been given the thankless job of running the kitchen at night.

Moreover, chefs never seem to realise that room service food cannot be treated like restaurant food. Have you ever had a room service burger where the bottom of the bun has not been so soggy that the whole burger disintegrates in your hand by the time you are ready to eat it?

The reason is simple: time. Think about the process. The chef grills the burger patty. He slathers sauce on it and puts it between two pieces of bread. It waits there till some waiter picks it up for delivery. Then, the waiter leaves the kitchen, walks to the elevator, waits for it to turn up, and then when it eventually arrives, he goes to the floor in question and wanders through the corridor for several minutes till he reaches your room. This process can take up to 20 minutes.

No wet sandwich is going to last that long. That should be obvious. But no chef seems to get it.

Then, there’s the matter of the hot case. These days, luxury hotels pride themselves on sending orders on trolleys and not trays. Everything is transported inside a heated cabinet in the trolley. The theory is that this way, your food will be hot when it reaches you.

It should be obvious, even to a small child, that if food is kept inside what is effectively an oven for 15 to 20 minutes, it will continue to cook.

Small children may see this. Chefs don’t.

So, a chef will proudly send out a medium rare steak and then sound surprised when the guest calls to complain that his steak is overcooked. Or the chef will dispatch a plate of coddled or scrambled eggs and act astonished when the guest complains that he has received congealed eggs.

The problem is that chefs are trapped in a restaurant mindset. They think their job ends once they’ve plated the food and put a poncy sprig of parsley or half a raw tomato by the side of the main course. They do not realise that their job only ends when the dish actually reaches the room and is served to the guest. And sadly, their managers do not tell them otherwise.

That’s why it is so difficult to get decent room service even at the best hotels.

There’s more on the subject of room service: on the pointless standardisation of menus so that all regional specialties are eliminated and on the massive challenge that is the room service breakfast.

But that will have to wait for another week.